By Pranav Iyer
Growing up, football has been the biggest constant in Izaiah Nakanishi’s life. When he began playing the game at age five, it was his mom or uncle who always had to come on the field and pick him up by the facemask because he had no idea what to do when he got tackled. Soon enough though, he began finding success in his local youth football league and later at Oak Grove High School. But as he aged, the Japanese-American Nakanishi also began to realize that he was more often than not the only Asian-American player on his team or on the field during games. Opposing players started calling him various derogatory names solely based on his cultural heritage, including “Jap” and “zipperhead.” In a sport that is known for unity, Nakanishi realized he stuck out like a sore thumb. While his Asian-American heritage made him feel special at times, it also created a sense of isolation.
In 2016, there were 115 athletes of Asian descent who were playing NCAA Division I football. To put this number in perspective, there were 28,141 total players. That means the percentage of Asians competing at the highest collegiate level was a minuscule 0.4 percent. Although Asians are a minority in America, they still represent 5.8 percent of the total population. Proportionally, the numbers just don’t add up. Asian-American representation in the nation’s most popular sport is nearly 15 times less than their makeup of the overall population.
People of Asian lineage only made up for only 0.4% of all NCAA Division I football athletes during the 2016-2017 school year. This is almost 15 times less than their representation of the overall American population. Data courtesy of NCAA.com.
This same trend is seen in most other sports as well, as Asians represent only 1.4 percent of the total Division I student-athlete population. But this discrepancy in representation is absent in a select few sports. For example, in tennis, the percentage of male and female Asian-American athletes playing at the Division I level is 5.5 percent, a more comparable number to the overall population percentage. And in gymnastics, Asian-American men make up over 10 percent of the total athlete population and 15.8 percent of the population in fencing.
So what causes the overall Asian-American representation in sports to be so significantly low? And why is it that Asian-Americans have more participation in some sports than others?
The physiological reasons are pretty clear. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average height and weight for Asian-American males are 5’7.5’’ and 161 pounds. This is over 2.5 inches and nearly 40 pounds less than the average height and weight of Caucasian-Americans and African-Americans.
The graph depicts the average height and weight of men above the age of 20 among various ethnicities. Data courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Delving deeper into genetics, there are numerous studies that suggest links between race and athleticism. A 2003 study involving hundreds of Australian athletes, suggested that those with higher percentages of the R variant of the ACTN3 gene generally had more success in activities involving strength and speed. According to a separate study published in Human Molecular Genetics, the Asian race had on average the smallest percentage of the R variant of the gene, implying that Asians would find the least success in explosive sports, namely football.
Many Asians immigrants were raised in a culture that viewed sports more so a hobby or pastime rather than a means to obtaining success, according to Dr. Michelle Samura, a Chapman University education professor who has researched and published works regarding Asian-American racial identity and belonging.
This cultural difference can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the Asian professional sports scene is very minimal in comparison to America, according to Samura. She added that Asian cultures generally put a greater emphasis on the importance of education that can lead to “social mobility.” Countless Asian immigrants have migrated to pursue high levels of education or high-paying engineering and science-related careers. As of 2013, 57% of all immigrant engineers and scientists were from Asia. The same attention to schooling that immigrant Asian parents grew up with is often passed down to younger generations due to a sense of ‘familiarity,’ Menlo Atherton HS head coach Adhir Ravipati said. He believes that this is what causes Asian parents to shy away from allowing their children to seriously pursue sports.
With only a handful of Asian-American athletes finding success at the professional level in football, Asian-American communities have limited examples of people from similar backgrounds to give them the hope that high level achievement is even attainable for them.
“[Asian parents] probably don’t want their kids to play football because they think there is no future in football,” said Phillip Tran, East Los Angeles College quarterback. “You look on TV today, there are no Asians in football. There needs to be a role model first and then the Asian population in football will skyrocket.”
Like Tran, there are numerous Asian-Americans who have pushed past the societal barriers and wish to pursue football to the highest level attainable. One trend that has been apparent in up and coming young Asian American football stars and coaches is the overwhelming support and encouragement they receive from their parents to chase these ambitions. These parents see the sport through a different lens than most other Asian parents, which has been a result of many different factors, including culturally different upbringings and contrasting views on the value of sports.
Nakanishi stumbled into football largely due to his mother, Nicole. She is a fourth generation Japanese-American who grew up in South Side San Jose, the same area that her son has been raised in. Her great grandparents immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s and her grandfather fought in WWII but died when Nicole’s father was only 16. This caused much of the Japanese culture in the Nakanishi family to dissipate, according to Nicole.
“I didn’t embrace my culture as much because I didn’t understand it,” Nicole said about her Japanese heritage. “That wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I had my son and started to really embrace it.”
Living a relatively Americanized life, Nicole’s father put his children into the Oak Grove Pop Warner and cheerleading program because he believed that it would instill respect for elders and a sense of camaraderie in his children. When Izaiah grew up, Nicole also put her son in the same Pop Warner program, primarily because it was what was familiar for her. Nicole has always been the team mom for Izaiah's teams, constantly driving him around and watching almost every game he has played in. As Izaiah navigated the depths of being an MPR (Mandatory Play Rule) player in Pop Warner to being the standout receiver and catching game-winning touchdowns for a football powerhouse, Nicole has been his biggest supporter through it all.
Unlike Izaiah, current Menlo-Atherton HS head coach and former Division I wideout Adhir Ravipati is among the first generation in his family to be born in the states. He was raised in the Bay Area beginning in the first grade. From an early age, he was a sports fanatic who played nearly every sport that he was introduced to. He says that much of his passion for sports comes from his uncle, who was a sports writer for the Minnesota Vikings and Twins.
Ravipati attended The Harker School in Saratoga for middle and high school. THS has a 69 percent Asian population and is among the most prestigious and rigorous academic institutions in the country. In high school, he was a five-sport athlete in football, basketball, volleyball, baseball and track. Baseball was actually his first passion and it was not until high school that he began playing tackle football. As he started showing prowess in football, he realized his potential to further his playing career and hoped to do so at the highest level he could. When approaching this situation, his parents still greatly valued the importance of focusing on higher education like many other Asian parents, but they also saw a side of sports that others often fail to see.
“Athletics [are] a great opportunity to be able to leverage skills on the field as well as academics to be able to get a really good degree,” Ravipati said, “and I don't think kids or parents always understand that. The pluses have always outweighed the potential minuses so my parents were always really supportive of that.”
His parent’s constant support has allowed him to continue pursuing both his academic and athletic passions even beyond college. During the day, Ravipati is the Chief Product Officer at Protxx, a head injury prevention and management system for contact sports. After hours, he is the head coach for one of the states most successful football programs. Despite losing sleep and nearly all of his free time due to two highly intensive commitments, Ravipati knows that he will have the encouragement of his parents because of the value they see in each of his pursuits.
This was also the case for another THS alum and current Stanford receiver Sidhart Krishnamurthi. Early on, his parents were hesitant to the idea of him and his brother investing so much time and effort into football. But after seeing Sidhart’s older brother Gautham have the luxury of picking between two of the world’s best schools in Stanford and MIT partly because of his abilities on the field, they developed a completely different perspective on the situation. And the second time around with Sidhart, it was actually his mom who was doing the college research and pushing her son to send out emails to coaches.
Palo Alto HS senior running back Aiden Chang’s story differs from the rest in that he did not even live in the states for the vast majority of the life. His parents both grew up in Asia, came briefly to America to attend college and then moved back before their son’s birth. Chang was born in Korea and lived there until eighth grade before moving to Palo Alto. As he tried to accustom himself to American culture, he saw his classmates playing football for the first time in his life. He then went out on a whim and decided to try the sport for himself because he thought that with his speed he would be a good receiver.
“I had no idea what football was,” Chang said. “The first time I saw a football game was when my flag football friends took me to a sports bar to show me a game.”
He was deciding between cross country and football in ninth grade and his parents encouraged him to choose the latter. Chang said this is because his parents wanted him to have the American “high school experience” and believed football was a vital part of that. Even when he was a third-string running back on the freshmen team with little motivation to continue the foreign sport, it was his parents that pushed him to keep going. Now, he is the Viking’s star running back who is on pace to rush for over 2,000 yards during his two-year varsity career.
Parental influence can greatly dictate what course a child’s life will take. More often than not for Asian-Americans, this course has deviated far from the realm of football. But for these athletes, it was their parents that saw the importance of sports early on and created a nurturing environment for them to find and pursue their athletic passions.
For so many Asian-American football players like Izaiah, an obstacle that they have to face and overcome every day is racial profiling. The most obvious form that this is seen is through intentional racially-based comments. This is a tactic often used by opposing teams to get into the heads of their competition but can also just be a form of insensitive teenage humor.
“Being one of the only Asians and being one of the smallest, I get made fun of a lot,” Izaiah said. “They would say, ‘He can’t see, how’s he supposed to be able to catch a ball?’ or ‘Why is he even out here? He’s supposed to be doing homework.’”
But the type of racism that these athletes have found to be the most prevalent are not blatant remarks like these but unconscious assumptions based upon the stereotypes that are the byproduct of American culture. Because Asian-Americans are not often associated with success in sports, especially football, players subconsciously undermine their abilities on the field.
Unlike Izaiah, Chang attends a high school that has a sizable Asian-American population. Yet, there are rarely any that play football. Chang said that most of his Asian-American friends were off doing internships or taking prep courses during the summer while he was focused on football training. Chang knew that he had to prove himself more so than other players because, by his looks alone, he did not resemble the mold of a successful football player.
“Palo Alto has never had a starting Asian running back before and I was the only Asian on the team for the past three years,” Chang said. “The coaches aren’t really used to having Asians on the team but as soon I showed my skill on the freshmen team, I was accepted.”
Ravipati, Krishnamurthi and JJ Wang from Saratoga HS all come from schools where the majority of the student body is Asian-American. But contrastingly to PAHS, their football programs have a high percentage of Asian-American participation. Because of this, they rarely noticed the impact of their race on their involvement in the sport.
“It wasn’t something that was ever in the forefront of my mind,” Ravipati said. “Maybe that’s because I was playing with a bunch of other Asian-American kids growing up and in high school, so maybe I was a little dull to it.”
In fact, Wang saw it as an opportunity that allowed him to have a greater sense of acceptance. Being surrounded by like-minded people from similar backgrounds sheltered him from many of the harsh realities that came with being an Asian-American football player.
Unfortunately, predetermined stigmas play an even larger role when it comes to the collegiate level. Asian-American participation at the Division I level is almost non-existent. The 2018 ESPN 300, which is a ranking of the nation’s top 300 high school football recruits, consisted of zero athletes with significant Asian lineage. This is a statistic that college coaches will often either subconsciously or consciously take into consideration when they stumble upon the rare Asian-American recruit.
Tran believes this factor contributed to him not receiving more interest out of high school. During his varsity career, the quarterback managed to rack up over 5000 passing yards, 42 passing touchdowns and 19 rushing touchdowns while playing against some of the best competition in the Bay Area. As his senior year went by, he witnessed many of his peers receive offer after offer. But even though several Division I schools showed heavy interest in Tran, not one offered him a full scholarship.
“I knew in my head that I could play at the Division I level,” Tran said. “There [were] a lot of schools passing up on me and in my head, I automatically [thought it] was because I am Asian. They don’t believe in me. They don’t trust in me. Because I was talking to a lot of schools and none of them ever pulled the trigger on me, that’s what set the fire in me.”
IV. Brotherhood and Pride
Suiting up and taking the field every week as an Asian-American football player can be a very isolating experience at times, Izaiah says. Even with the immense brotherhood a football team can offer, sometimes the bond shared through cultural identity can be even more powerful.
When Tran began getting serious about football in high school, he recalls researching past Asian-American quarterbacks that have played at the Division I and professional level. The only notable example that he found was Timmy Chang, an FBS-record holder who was the leader of a high powered Hawaii Warrior offense from 2000 to 2004 and had short stints with several NFL, NFL Europe and CFL teams.
Years later, when Tran was freshmen at ELAC, he was contacted by none other than Chang himself. Chang was an assistant coach at the University of Nevada and the team was showing interest in the quarterback. According to Tran, Chang was surprised to see an Asian-American quarterback. Throughout the decades of his involvement with the sport, it was very rare that Chang would encounter another Asian-American. The two remained in contact throughout the recruiting process and along the way, Chang gave Tran pointers based on their shared identity as Asian-American quarterbacks. Even though Tran denied a preferred walk-on position at the school, he said that he still carries many of the tips that were passed on to him to this day.
This shared identity can be seen even stronger between teammates. Tran started off his high school career at Fremont HS and during both his freshmen and sophomore seasons he was the only Asian-American on his team. But once he transferred to Archbishop Mitty HS, he joined a handful of other Asian-Americans that shared similar stories to him. Likewise, Sidhart has also been able to build meaningful relationships with the few other Asian-Americans on his team on their journey together as members of the least represented ethnic group in Division I football. Both Tran and Krishnamurthi have been able to develop these deeper ties due to their ability relate about common upbringings and challenges they have had to face growing up as Asian-American athletes.
“You understand what that person is going through just being different than other players on the field,” Tran said. “
Often times, this Asian-American brotherhood is apparent between opposing players as well. While it is usually assumed that two friends from opposite teams would be able to share a moment together on the field, it truly transcends normal behavior when two opposing Asian-American athletes can make an instant connection on the field without previously knowing each other.
“Even though they are not on your team, you still feel like you know them,” Izaiah said. “You can go out on the field and after one of them lays you out or you lay them out, you can still have that bond and help each other up.”
Each of these athletes hopes that they would be seen by others first as highly successful football players rather than as athletes who are ‘good for being Asian.’ But there is still an immense sense of pride felt by these trailblazers who are representing a small group of Asian-Americans that have overcome numerous obstacles and defied stereotypes to achieve prosperity at high levels of football.
As a member of the varsity squad at Oak Grove, Izaiah has received the privilege of having his last name imprinted on the back of his jersey. He wears his jersey with honor, knowing that he is representing his culture and his family each time he steps on the field. But maybe even more so than Izaiah, football has also helped Nicole, who previously resented her Japanese heritage, to take immense pride in her culture. In addition to having “Nakanishi” tattooed on her neck in Japanese characters, she writes the name on her car for Izaiah's games and has a whole arsenal of customized apparel with the name on it for her and her family to wear.
“It gives my sister so much pride that she wants to change her three oldest kids last names to Nakanishi just so that they all represent Izaiah or so that he all represents us,” Nicole said exuberantly.
The Nakanishi family sees that through Izaiah and his football prowess, their Japanese-American culture can be strongly expressed in a way that looks past the stereotypes that Nicole once feared.
V. Change the Narrative
According to the US Census Bureau, the Asian-American population has grown from 11.9 million to 20.4 million between 2000 and 2015. This 72 percent increase is the highest growth rate for any ethnicity in the country during that time. By the numbers itself, there should be an increase in participation in the years to come.
The Asian-American population increase by 72 percent between 2000 to 2015 and is projected to reach nearly 50 million by 2060. Data courtesy of the US Census Bureau (Table 10. Projections of the Population by Sex, Hispanic Origin, and Race for the United States: 2015 to 2060).
Krishnamurthi has already seen a significant difference in Asian-American involvement in the sport. He has witnessed firsthand the Asian-American participation rise yearly ‘from the bottom up.’ As a coach, Ravipati has taken notice of the diversity of the coaching demographic among his league, the entire Bay Area and even professionally to become more representative of the overall population among all ethnicities. He believes the drastic and steady Asian-American population increase is what has caused there to now be some representation, however infinitesimal, in collegiate and NFL coaching staffs. Some coaches he referred to were Dallas Cowboys Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal and Atlanta Falcons Special Teams Assistant and San Jose native Mayur Chaudhari.
Still, this increase in population does not, by itself, alter the proportionally low rates of Asian-American participation in football. Professor Samura argued that one of the key factors that will combat this issue is the change in the generational makeup of Asian-Americans.
After the 1965 Immigration Act, the Asian-American demographics quickly spiked. Between 1970 and 1990, the Asian American population grew from about 1.5 million to nearly 7 million due to mass immigration. As of 2000, 90 percent of Asian-Americans were first or second generation. With time, these first and second generation Asian-Americans will become third and fourth generation. What this will do, Samura says, is allow for more possibilities for different pursuits and engagement in mainstream culture. With football playing a large role in American culture, higher representation in the sport among later generation Asian-Americans is likely.
“There definitely are differences in terms of expectations based upon generational status,” Samura said. “When you have been in a country for multiple generations, there is a different sense of belonging.”
While the cultural assimilation is increasing generation by generation, traditional Asian cultures are still preserved and passed down in many families. This is why another key contributor to fixing this problem is changing parents mindsets when it comes to the importance of sports. Both Ravipati and Krishnamurthi were showered with support from their parents when it came to pursuing their athletic ambitions because they understood that sports could be used as a catalyst to receive a great education. In football especially, Ravipati says, there are so many opportunities because of the vast number of teams and players per team.
This cultural barrier can also be addressed through participation in diverse sports programs, ranging from mainstream kids' sports leagues to co-ethnic activities, such as historically Asian-American sports leagues, Samura says. Basketball and baseball Asian-American leagues began in the early 1900s to give opportunities for participation in what was a very segregated America. These leagues offered a sense of inclusion and helped to normalize each sport in Asian-American culture. Many of these leagues have carried on to this day to preserve cultural ties and continue to offer minorities chances to pursue and succeed in sports. But today, there are no noteworthy Asian-American football leagues. Samura speculates that the implementation of these leagues into the sport may cause more interest to be garnered and cultural acceptance of the sport to increase. She believes that the increase of Asian-American participation in racially diverse sports teams will also help develop greater understanding on all fronts.
“Diversity, inclusion, belonging is a process and it takes work,” Samura said. “It’s a key piece to have members of different identities and backgrounds together, but that's not enough. There needs to be structures in place, programs in place, opportunities for meaningful interactions that activate the benefits of diversity. Those types of insights are useful when we look at diversity in sports.”
The effects of all these potential solutions will be minimal until there are significant examples of Asian-Americans having success at the professional level. Once this happens, participation should ‘skyrocket,’ Tran says. The impact of this is two-fold. For one, it will give Asian-American athletes and their families a more solidified belief that there is possibility for success through the sport. Secondly, it will help to eradicate many of the stereotypes and barriers that have often caused participation in football to be unfavorable. By having Asian-American public figures in the sport, the thought of an Asian-American football player will become more normalized in American culture.
Tran, Chang and many other prosperous Asian-American football players understand the power they have to inspire and create change within their community. It is Chang’s wish that future generations of Asian-Americans can continue to overcome the intimidations of being a minority in the sport. He also hopes that his younger brother, who plans on playing football at PAHS next year, would view him as a role model and an example that success in the sport is attainable regardless of race.
For the time being, there are still many hurdles that Asian-American football players will have to overcome on their way to success. But Tran recognizes that it was not conforming to societal expectations that has allowed him to achieve so much through the sport thus far. Instead, it was his resistance to sink into conformity and desire to pursue his own passions that have allowed him to find purpose and fulfillment through his endeavors.
“In this world, you never know what is going to happen,” Tran said. “I never thought I would be in the position I am today. [Football] took me places that, honestly, I never thought of: playing in the Charlie Wedemeyer [All-Star] game at Levi’s Stadium, playing in an all-star game in Hawaii and [taking] my parents with me too. I never thought I’d get this far and I’m not finished yet. So my message for the future generations [of Asian-Americans] is to chase your dreams. If this is really what you want to do, go as far as you can with it and see where it takes you.”
Contact Pranav Iyer at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @brettfavre2000.
Contact GetSportsFocus at GetSportsFocus@gmail.com and follow them on Twitter at @GetSportsFocus.